The plane didn’t look like much, but the storm did. Sitting in Vancouver’s South Terminal on a cold metal chair, I glared at the flight board, willing it to change. A man in a business suit waved his hands at the flight attendant behind the counter. She nodded politely and stretched her thin smile. An older, shorter, broader woman came to help. In a strong voice, she implored the well-dressed man to sit down, and told him that we’d be called for boarding when it was determined if our flight was cancelled or not.
“It can’t be cancelled,” he grumbled, taking a seat two rows behind me. Outside, the small propeller plane sat in the shadow of ominous clouds. That tiny, rickety metal bird was supposed to transport me through the wild, unpredictable skies to Tofino.
I would be picked up in the small island airport by the marketing manager of the hotel I was staying at. I was travelling for work, and my weekend plans were all mapped out—dinner, a soak in the hot tub overlooking the ocean, and a hike to a waterfall tomorrow. Storm season had already begun, so I’d expected crashing ocean waves—just not for them to impede my arrival. When the ferry crossings were cancelled due to high winds and choppy water, I was relieved I’d booked a seat on this 19-passenger plane. But now, I was starting to worry we wouldn’t get there, either.
Evidentially, the other passengers felt the same way. A stylish woman bobbed from foot to foot, unwilling or unable to take a seat and wait for the announcement. I wondered who was meeting her on the island: a friend? Family member? Lover? Everyone was flying alone, but no one seemed keen to wait out the storm and take a flight tomorrow.
Truthfully, it didn’t look that bad outside, either. The storm was centered over the island; besides, weren’t we used to rain and clouds on the wet coast?
The older, stronger flight attendant walked up to the desk, raised her voice and announced to the fifteen or so of us gathered around the gate: “Flight to Tofino… Boarding!”
I snagged my little black rolling suitcase, shouldered my bulging purse and strutted the concrete runway towards the little Beechcraft airplane. A handful of impatient passengers rushed to board the small aircraft. There was only one worn black leather seat on each side of the aisle. It was like being inside a narrow, metallic cave. I nearly tripped over the uneven, peeling carpet as I sat down. The cockpit had no door. I wondered how this old plane would hold up in the sky.
The pilot was young. I remember his hair being brown, but he could have been blond, or bald, or wearing a turban. All I know for certain is that he looked young, 20-something. Early 20s. Apparently, most pilots start logging their hours and completing their training on little prop planes like this. These small planes are lighter, with weaker engines that are more helpless against severe weather and strong winds, especially during take-off and landing. They are manned by the pilots who are the youngest; the least experienced; the most vulnerable to manipulation.
He smiled encouragingly at the handful of passengers while giving his speech, a cast member performing safety protocols for an uninterested audience. I texted my destination host to let her know I was on my way.
Propellors spinning, we flew through the sky above the raging ocean. Once we were in the air, the storm didn’t seem bad at all. Our little Beechcraft 1900 glided along, albeit buzzing louder than I would like. But I wasn’t a stranger to small planes; I’d flown in one several times when visiting my rural, northern hometown.
We’d flown over most of Vancouver Island when the clouds beneath us turned dark purple, like a fresh bruise or an overripe plum. Rain streaked the foggy egg-shaped window until I couldn’t see outside at all. The pilot’s voice raised over the humming propellors. This time, his voice shook with a whisper of uncertainty, matching the reverberations of the wings. “I’m going to try to land,” he told us. “But if I can’t, I’ll have to turn around and head back to Vancouver.”
A collective groan echoed throughout the cabin. “Come on man, you can do it!” the man in the business suit shouted, likely thinking of his blissful weekend home on the coast or a big-spending client.
“We believe in you,” added the stylish woman, mind wandering to her awaiting lover.
I took a different approach. “Don’t goad him on!” I admonished the passengers. And, to the young, 20-year-old, unexperienced, easily manipulated pilot: “Only try to land if you feel comfortable to do so.”
He tried on a turbulent smile, but it slipped from his lips at the same time the plane fell into the clouds.
We were in the middle of the storm.
I’ve flown on many, many planes before—from gigantic Boeing 747s en-route to Europe and South Africa to a lavish private jet to Cuba. Bumpy rides, sudden jolts, even uncomfortable landings from the seat of a steel bird didn’t unnerve me. I wasn’t afraid of flying. I loved flying.
But this felt like falling.
Black storm clouds engulfed us. Rain pelted the plane from every direction: up, down, sideways. We were lost in the clouds, swallowed in the dark. Blackness overtook the cabin. I think I heard the stylish woman yelp. This is it, I thought to myself. I might actually die right now.
Just as the plane burst through the storm clouds, the tarmac was right there right there oh my god don’t hit the ground now are we going down—
The young pilot swooped up on the controls and the plane flew parallel to the landing strip, grinding to a halt as the plane’s wheels bounced up-and-down-and-thankfully-down to the ground. The passengers settled back into our seats, and the pilot let out a long-held breath.
“Well, folks,” he said in his shakiest voice yet, “we made it.”
“Good man,” the businessman quipped, but even he had to smooth down his suit jacket. The stylish woman pulled out a comb and a pocket mirror. I took out my phone to text, ‘here.’
My knees nearly buckled when I stood up. It wasn’t until I felt the pavement beneath my feet that the reality of our close call swept through my body. Tears streamed out of my eyes and my hair fled behind me, tugged out by the incessant wind. I have to fly back in two days, I thought to myself.
I prayed for sun.